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Giving Thanks: Gratitude Practice

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Gratitude is good for us. Brain research shows that simply being grateful releases neurotransmitters that act like dopamine in our brains, making us feel good, and boosting our overall health.

New findings show that practicing gratitude actually rewires our brains to be more altruistic, activating areas of the brain that reward our generosity by increasing the neurotransmitters that signal pleasure and also goal attainment. In other words, the more we find ways to be grateful, the more generous we are and the more we give others a reason to be grateful. That feedback loop gives us more happiness and satisfaction. 

The hook is that we can't just be grateful over one meal, one day a year. We have to make it a habit to remember specific things we are grateful for on a regular basis. And consciously act in generous ways, too. 

Those who have read this blog for a while know that Thanksgiving marks a difficult time of year for me because my husband, Richard Cabe, died of brain cancer a few days after Thanksgiving in 2011, when he was just 61. His death followed that of my mom, who died in February of that year. I midwifed both deaths at home, as each wished, with the help of family, friends, and hospice care.

It's been eight years. Still, I tend to fold inward in late November, not so much from grief, but from anticipatory anxiety. Those two deaths catapulted me into a few very difficult years as I dug myself out of what seemed like an impossible amount of debt, and invented a life that was happy, sustainable, and satisfying. 

As an antidote to the trauma of those events and the blues that stem from my muscle memories, I consciously practice gratitude and generosity at this time of year (not only now--I'm just more aware of it at this season). Here's what I'm most grateful for right now, in no particular order: 

Casa Alegría, in our surprise Thanksgiving snowstorm

My new house, which I call Casa Alegría, "House of Joy" in Spanish. It's been through foreclosure and needs some serious love, but it's such a beautiful space with great light and open spaces inside and out, plus it feels sheltered in its little hollow. It offers both refuge and expansive views, a nest that gives me a wider perspective on the world, both literally and figuratively. 

The great room, with its two-story-high ceiling of tongue-and-groove pine, sun-space opening onto the nearby wild, and The Beast, the pellet stove that supplements the sun's heat. 

The loft, with my desk tucked into the south-facing dormer with it's hundred-mile view all the way to central New Mexico's Sierra Oscura. 

The kitchen, all warm-colored pine cabinets and cozy beamed ceiling. (There's a hummingbird nest in the New Mexico locust tree out the window.)

The master bedroom with its sky blue accent wall, and a door leading directly outside to a little covered porch facing east toward the greenbelt below the house. 

I've just gotten started on the work Casa Alegría needs to feel like a healthy home, beginning with painting a few of the all-white walls in shades of sage green, pale terracotta, dawn yellow, and a soft sky blue. And replacing aged light fixtures with new, energy-efficient ones. The more substantive work will begin this winter, when the uninsulated garage door that no longer shuts completely is replaced with a new, insulated one. (That door not sealing explains the money I spent sterilizing the mouse-infected attic above the garage.) Then I'll have insulation blown into the attic, which has none after I disposed of the old mouse-pee-crusted fiberglass batts. Plus gutters added to the front portal and the north- and east-facing roofs. 

Then comes replacing all of the openable windows and a few of the exterior doors with more efficient ones that will actually seal as well as letting in more light. Followed by stabilizing an exterior post or two, a tricky process that involves putting jacks under overhanging roofs and carefully removing a post, digging a foundation and pouring a concrete base, and then replacing the post using plates and bolts instead of simply nails. 

All of which sounds like a lot of work, but is nothing compared to the two years of starting in the basement and working my way upwards re-building the Cody house!

Another thing I'm particularly grateful for is the company of a charming canine caballero (gentleman), Badger, the 11-year-old Vizsla in the photo above. Badger has been visiting for the last two weeks while his guy was away on a road trip. In his own polite way, Badger insists on two long walks a day--we usually do three miles or more--on the roads and trails around the house. He also insists on playtime when I've worked too long, usually by sitting up on the couch and howling until I come downstairs from the loft!

Badger and his person, DeWitt, wandered into my life when I was teaching at Ring Lake Ranch in September. That deepening friendship is another thing I'm grateful for. DeWitt generously spent a week here helping me move. He insisted on playtime too, so we spent a night relaxing at the hot springs at Ojo Caliente, and then played hooky for a whole afternoon exploring part of the old Camino Real with DeWitt's sister, Lori, and her friend Allison, and their horses. It's been so long since I had horses in my life that I had entirely forgotten the joy of simply riding a trail for a few hours without any agenda or schedule. 

And that's another thing I'm grateful for: I'm relearning joy and play. I have been pushing myself so hard for so long that I have neglected the practice of stepping back from relentless do-ing into a more loving and trusting be-ing. It's time for me to re-learn be-ing and letting my heart guide me. 

I'm also grateful for all of you, and the love and compassion you offer the world. 

What are you grateful for?

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Isostatic Rebound: Recovering Wildness

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isostatic rebound n. The slow rise of continental crusts after thick ice sheets recede, and the crustal rocks are freed from their massive weight. Measured in thousands of years. Also called glacial isostatic adjustment. 

Driving north to teach at Ring Lake Ranch just before Labor Day weekend, I experienced an odd phenomenon as I went over the ridge that bounds the northern edge of North Park in Colorado. It was evening and the sun was near to setting. The light over the hayfields was golden and the air still. 

As I crossed the state line into Wyoming, I let out a long sigh and relaxed. It felt as if the world had expanded, the horizons stretching away. As if a spaciousness had opened both within me and without.

The landscape didn't change much at the Colorado–Wyoming line, but something in me shifted. I couldn't explain what happened exactly or what it meant, so I pressed on. 

A little over a week later after I finished my gig at Ring Lake Ranch in Wyoming's Wind River Range, I was on my way north to Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park to continue my long-term project of hand-digging invasive weeds. I stopped at a favorite spot on the northern shore of Lake Yellowstone, sat on a rock, and looked south across the wind-ruffled expanse of the lake at the wildest part of our nation's oldest national park, the Thorofare Valley.

Yellowstone Lake with the peaks of the Absarokas on the left, and the gap of the Thorofare Valley in the far distance in the middle skyline.  

I walked most of the length of that wild and remote valley on a multi-day, solo backpacking trip years ago. One noontime on that trek, I watched, fascinated, as a grizzly bear stalked a sandhill crane; on several nights, I woke to the sound of moose thrashing through willow thickets perilously close to my tent. I went several days without seeing another human. I sang a lot, and talked out loud to Sadie, the borrowed dog who accompanied me that week. 

Looking across the lake last month, I remembered clearly how it felt to be on my own in some of the biggest wild in the lower 48 states, where I was constantly alert to the world around me, acutely aware that I was really just lunch for any one of the larger predators around, whether grizzly bears, mountain lions, or whomever. And that if anything happened to me, it was likely that I'd never be found. 

I walked through those days in a state of mixed terror and exhilaration, alive in a way I only feel when I'm in the wild. Especially when I'm in the wild alone. 

Looking across the lake with the feel of fall in the air, I realized that I need more wildness in my life. Over the decades of living with and loving Richard and Molly, I put the part of me which needs wilderness aside. Neither Richard nor Molly had or have the same deep need for time in the Big Wild as I do. Their idea of wilderness is that at the end of the day, there will be a microbrewery nearby with a good selection of Belgian-style ales, a hot shower, and a real bed. 

We went on precisely one backpacking trip as a family, when Molly was four and we lived in West Virginia. It was my birthday, and I was determined to celebrate in the wildest place around, so I mapped out a three-day, two-night trip in the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area. It wouldn't offer the solitude and rugged peaks of the northern Rockies, I knew, but I figured it would at least get us out to enjoy some wild nearby. 

Richard and Molly were so miserable the first night that I took pity on us all: we packed out the next morning, stopping on the way home for a "real breakfast," in Molly's words, and "decent coffee" in the words of her dad. I tried again a few times over the years, but they simply didn't love what I love about being out and away from humans. 

So I put aside the part of me who craves time away from humanity, time to refresh and recharge in the wild, time to be fully awake and present in my moments because I am reminded vividly that I am just a meal for some larger organism... Over the years I forgot I even need that time. 

Trail Lake at dawn from Ring Lake Ranch, with the peaks of the Wind River Range framed by the glacial valley. 

Sitting on the shore of Yellowstone Lake on that breezy, chill day last month, I realized that what I felt when I crossed the state line into Wyoming was my spirit expanding to fit the wide spaces around me. Wyoming is roughly the same size as Colorado, where Richard and I lived for decades. But the human population of Colorado is over 5 million people, while Wyoming's population is now less than 600,000 people, almost an order of magnitude smaller. With fewer people on the land, Wyoming is home to multitudes of pronghorn, sage grouse, elk, mountain lions, grizzly bears, and wolves. (Not to mention all of the smaller species, also more numerous in the absence humans.)

I thought about that realization as I worked up a sweat hand-digging knapweed for the next week and some, and as I visited friends in Cody. As I drove south toward home, my charming little condo in Santa Fe, I realized that I need more space and fewer people around me. I pondered what that would look like in Santa Fe. 

I stopped on Beaver Rim with its long view of the Wind River Range and the Absarokas beyond, country that I know intimately from my fieldwork years before Richard and Molly came into my life. Taking in that long view of the country I have walked and ridden over, spending days far from roads and people, I impulsively used my phone to check the listings of houses for sale in Eldorado, a planned community with abundant open space and trails where the plains meet the mountains southeast of Santa Fe. 

The view of the Wind River Range from Beaver Rim, a long fetch of open country. 

Standing there on the ridge looking at houses for sale southeast of Santa Fe, I spotted a photo of a small, Northern-New Mexico-style house with a steeply-slanting metal roof, dormers, and a windowed sun-space for solar gain, tucked into a bit of a hollow, a bit apart from its neighbors, backed up on greenbelt. And I knew it was mine because my spirit expanded looking at the photos of that house, the way my soul opened up when I crossed the Wyoming line on the way north. 

When I got home, I called my friend and real estate agent; we laughed about my realization and how much I've moved in the past five years. Then she arranged for me to see the place. In person, I could see it needed a good bit of TLC, but not so much it frightened me. And it still felt like mine, my place of wide skies and nighttime stars, of hikes or trail rides from the house into the nearby wild ridges. I'm scheduled to close on the place I call Casa Alegria on November 1st. I'll have a little work done right away, and move in over the next week. I can hardly wait (even though I've been too busy to even pack a single box!)

It's as if I'm experiencing isostatic rebound after the losses of the last eight years: Mom, Richard, and Dad, the latter just a year ago. It's been a slow process and a lot of searching, but I feel as if in that gradual rising as the immense weight of grief melts away, I am rediscovering myself. My heart and spirit are expanding into the space I am creating. And I like the me I am finding. 

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Where's Susan? (Part 2)

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Since I left Ring Lake Ranch two weeks ago after a teaching sojourn that was simultaneously restorative and stimulating, Noche's tires have hummed another 1,200 miles. First west to Grand Teton National Park, where I waved at that familiar wall of peaks as I drove by. (That's the Tetons at the top of the post.) I didn't stop to explore the familiar park because I was on a mission, headed north to Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone NP, where I spent a week working at eradicating non-native, invasive weeds. 

For the past four summers, I've spent at least a week, usually three or four, in Yellowstone doing what I call my "weeding mission." Which is about as much like weeding a garden as running a marathon is like my twice-weekly half-hour run on a treadmill. They're both exercise, but running a marathon and eradicating invasive weeds are both long games: each requires patience, strategy, and as much mental toughness as physical toughness. 

As I've written in other contexts, including this blog post for Off the Beaten Path, what leads a non-native plant to being called "invasive" is not a prejudice against immigrants:

Tens of thousands of non-native species call the United States home without causing harm. But not every species belongs everywhere. Invasives are those relative few who don’t play well with others, the species who behave badly, a detriment to us all.

The invasive weed I was digging in my time around Mammoth in Yellowstone is spotted knapweed, known to science as Centaurea maculosa, a perennial plant native to Eastern Europe. Here on this continent, spotted knapweed so does not play well with others that it wrecks the neighborhood. When spotted knapweed moves in, its roots exude poisons into the soil, "discouraging" (aka, killing) the roots of the native species around it, so that eventually, the knapweed takes over. 

Spotted knapweed, Centuarea maculosa, quietly engaged in killing the Indian ricegrass and other native plants that songbirds and pollinators depend on, so its progeny can colonize the area. 

But, you protest, it's got such a pretty purple flower! Surely knapweed attracts bumblebees and other native bees, and perhaps its seeds are edible by wintering songbirds and small mammals, so it does actually benefit the community of the land?

It's true that bumblebees do gather pollen from knapweed, though I've never seen other native bees visit the flowers. I don't know if knapweed's seeds are sought out by any of the seed-gathering birds or mammals as winter food, but I'd guess not because they're dry and chaffy, rather than plump and nutritious. 

What I do know is that knapweed lacks the rich web of relationships with other plants and other species that sustain a healthy landscape. And by replacing the native plants, knapweed disrupts those relationships--between pollinator and flower, between bird and the insects they feed their young, between mammal and seed, between those that shelter and those sheltered.

Worse yet, if unchecked, spotted knapweed can kill off the shrubby overstory of basin big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata var. tridentata) that Mark Twain recognized as the "forest canopy in miniature." These century-old plants, growing as tall as ten feet with twisting stems as big as the bicep of a muscly man, shade the soil, collect rain and snow for moisture, drop a fertilizing layer of leaves, and provide food and homes for hundreds of species of wildlife, from flashy black-and-white buckmoths to speedster pronghorn antelope. 

Grandmother big sagebrush in the area I've been digging knapweed; the tallest plant is about ten feet. 

Without big sagebrush as the sheltering canopy, these drought-challenged grasslands will turn inhospitable indeed, losing species diversity, richness, and their rugged beauty. I remove knapweed as a way to honor the diversity of lives they support, and to restore their wild community to health.

Digging my plant knife into the soil to pry out the spreading roots of a spotted knapweed plant is my personal resistance to climate change, my way to give resilience to the landscapes I love. 

My plant knife next to a knapweed I have freshly pried out of the clayey soil, being careful to not disturb the sagebrush roots. 

And dig I do, kneeling on the soil, carefully inserting the seven-inch blade of my tool into the soil, and applying enough leverage that the roots come free. Then sitting back, taking a deep breath, stretching my back and my arms, before thrusting the blade into the soil to pry up another knapweed. And another, and another. In some places they are so dense that it takes me an hour or more to clear a meter-square area (that's a bit bigger than a square yard). 

By the end of three or four hours, when I am worn out for the day, I usually have two or three 30-gallon bags filled with knapweed. (I bag up the plants to be taken to the dump so that no seeds are dispersed, and so the decomposing plants don't continue to emit their mite of poison to the soil.)

Weed bags stuffed into the micro-camper where I sleep in the back of Noche, my Toyota Highlander Hybrid. 

While I'm digging weeds, I keep my ears and eyes alert for wildlife. Sometimes a grizzly bear mom wanders by with her almost-grown cubs (yes, I carry bear spray). Or the resident bull elk herds his harem of two dozen or so cows and calves right through the area where I'm working (I move safely out of the way until they leave!).

Romeo in elk form, serenading his Juliets (that's "Juliets" plural, because of how many females he was wooing). 

Or, like the afternoon I was working with filmmaker Beth Davidow, I stop in awe to watch a nearly six-foot-long bullsnake glide past, hunting silently just a few feet from where we stood. (I'm sure Beth, a talented photographer, got a much better shot!)

The hunting bullsnake--her body was as large around as my upper arm. 

In my time in Yellowstone, I worked hard, rested well, and found, as a friend put it, "balm for my soul." It does my spirit good to contribute positively to this Earth, especially in a time of crisis. 

Now I'm home, working on restoring wildness and resilience to nature right around the condo complex where I live, including the strip of pollinator habitat with the gold flare of flowering rubber rabbitbrush (Ericamera nauseosa) and rubberweed (Hymenoxys richardsonii), and purple fall asters (which I haven't yet identified) in the photo below. Not only are these native flowers beautiful and drought-tolerant, they provide fall's final banquet for pollinators of all sorts, including bees, beetles, and butterflies. And come the hungry months of winter, their seeds will feed bushtits, juncos, and other small songbirds. 

You don't have to journey to Yellowstone and dig knapweed to make a difference.

We can all restore the health of nature around us, by removing invasive weeds and planting native species in yards, parks, and nearby landscapes. In a time full of bad news, returning health, resilience, and beauty to nature nearby is good news for us all. Join me in giving back to the Earth that gives us so much!

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Where's Susan?

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As in, Where's Waldo? Except that I'm easily spotted in the front row of the photo above, shot at Ring Lake Ranch in the Wind River Range outside Dubois, Wyoming, last night. That group of people includes many of the participants in my week-long seminar, "Cultivating Sacred Stewardship of Nature in a Time of Climate Change," and some of the staff and children of Ring Lake Ranch, a dude ranch with a mission of offering "refreshment and renewal in sacred wilderness."

(The photo is missing several people, including RLR director Andy Blackmum--he's behind the camera; and multi-faceted ranch wrangler/horse whisperers Mo Morrow and DeWitt Daggett. DeWitt is presenting a seminar in September of 2020 on a spiritual practice of belonging, using horses as teachers.)

The view of Trail Lake and the high peaks of the Winds from my cabin at Ring Lake Ranch.

I can attest that the ranch fulfills its mission and then some. There's the setting, which is spectacular and wonderfully "apart" enough from ordinary life to be restful just by itself. And the people, both staff and participants, who are not just warm and welcoming, but capable and playful and interesting, and intellectually and spiritually deep. And then there's the hiking and paddling and riding and food... 

I came away feeling quite refreshed and renewed--full of ideas, new connections, and excitement about the work I was teaching and the people I met. (And also a bit saddle-sore from some great trail rides, about which I am not complaining one bit!) 

Stopping on a ride to take in the view... 

Before going to Ring Lake, I was, frankly, a bit intimidated to be offering a seminar at a place that hosts noted thinkers, writers, and artists in the Christian tradition, especially knowing that among the participants in my group would be faith leaders from various mainstream Christian denominations and other traditions. Honestly, I wondered what I, a scientist and writer who considers herself a Quaker Pagan, would have to offer. 

Plenty, as it turned out. The group bubbled over with energy and excitement, ending the week with a new understanding of how restoring healthy nature nearby, including on our church grounds, can also restore us humans, our communities, and the Earth we share. I think I learned as much as the participants did, both from their responses and ideas, and from the work of examining and organizing my thoughts in order to teach. 

Sheepeater petroglyph image (circa 800 to 1,200 years ago)

Part of the magic of Ring Lake Ranch is that it has been a sacred site for at least a millennia. The ancestors of today's Eastern Shoshone people chipped petroglyphs of sacred beings they saw into the sandstone cliffs in and around the ranch. Those rock spirits, some with wings, some masked, some with clawed or curled feet, and many with curving "tails" like smoke leading out of a natural crack in the rock, have the feel of a sacred gallery, an assemblage of wisdom and visions we may never truly understand, but which offer wordless information and inspiration. 

I am still processing what was an extraordinary week. I feel as if the time at Ring Lake Ranch was a kind of sacred pilgrimage, one taken without knowing at all what I sought, and despite that, I found just what I needed. 

Looking across Yellowstone Lake this afternoon toward the wild Thorofare Valley, where I once walked alone, with only a friend's dog, on another week-long pilgrimage. 

Tonight I am in Gardiner, Montana, writing with the rushing voice of the Yellowstone River coming in my open door, as a quarter moon sails in the still-blue sky after sunset. Tomorrow I will head to Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park and begin a week of digging invasive weeds. Despite a gloomy forecast of rain and cold temperatures, I look forward to the hard physical work. It is good thinking time for me, and I will use it well. 

As summer edges toward fall, my wish for all of us is that we find ways to nourish our hearts, minds, and spirits, no matter these difficult times. And that we each cultivate an active relationship with the sacred community of nature around us, and find ways to nourish and restore that community, as part of the work of healing this battered planet--and us, too. 

Blessings to you all!

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Weeding: Tending My Neighborhood Arroyo

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I'm sitting at the breakfast bar in my condo, my arms scratched, body sweaty, and muscles sore, eating a grilled cheese sandwich with green chile and avocado for late dinner, feeling tired and quite satisfied. I've just spent an hour with my well-loved loppers and hand-saw, cutting invasive Siberian elm trees (Ulmus pumila) from the arroyo that runs through my neighborhood.

(That's the arroyo in the photo at the top of this post, looking upstream.)

It's a classic northern New Mexico waterway, where the water itself is hidden below ground most of the year, except after rains and snow-melt. That sub-surface "stream" helps recharge the groundwater table, and nourishes extra-lush ("lush" for this high desert, that is!) plant growth along it: scattered clusters of cottonwood trees (Populus fremontii) with New Mexico privet (Forestiera pubescens) under them, plus piñon pine (Pinus edulis) and Rocky mountain juniper (Sabina scopulorum) along the edges.

Looking down on the arroyo from the street.

The silvery-green shrubs in the photo above are rubber rabbitbrush (Ericamera nauseusa in the language of sciencechamisa in Spanish), whose flowers turn whole swaths of the landscape golden in fall, providing what my friend Lauren Springer Ogden calls "the last bar open" for pollinators of all kinds, especially butterflies, beetles, and native bees. Its chaffy seeds are critical food for bushtits and other small songbirds in the hungry months of February and March, when other food is scarce.

Painted lady butterfly nectaring on a rubber rabbitbrush shrub in late September. 

Dotted among the rabbitbrush are smooth currant (Ribes cereum) with early flowers that feed hummingbirds and red berries songbirds seek out, Apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa) with its bee-friendly flowers and feathery and edible seeds, and narrowleaf yucca (Yucca baileyi) with the tall, candle-like flower stalks that nourish yucca moths and aphid-slurping orioles; plus dozens of kinds of wildflowers, including my favorite, long-flowered gilia (Ipomopsis longiflora), beloved of evening-flying sphinx moths for the nectaries at the base of those long floral tubes.  

Long-flowered gilia opening in the evening, ready for white-lined sphinx moths

This bounty of native plants that provides homes and food for wildlife large and small lines the arroyo--unless Siberian elms move in and take over, growing thickets of deep-rooted trees that suck up the underground water, shade out the sun-loving native flora, and drop a thick layer of leaves and small branches that smothers the soil and is as flammable as dry kindling. 

And take over they do: Siberian elms are ubiquitous throughout the arid West, imported here from Asia as a hardy, fast-growing, drought- and cold-tolerant tree that would form windbreaks and provide shade in places where shade was scarce. All of that proved true, only the trees took far too readily to their new environment, growing rapidly, and producing thousands of seeds that skittered before the wind, piling up in drifts in every nook and cranny, and sprouting much too readily. 

Which wouldn't be bad if they provided anything close to the rich habitat of the native arroyo flora. One Siberian elm may make a great shade tree for a yard; a whole thicket of them is silent, home to few insect species and fewer birds, in contrast to the lively arroyo habitat outside the thickets. Siberian elms are the definition of an invasive species: one that comes from another place, has few if any relationships with the existing natural community, and proceeds to multiply and ruin the habitat, a playground bully run amok in the landscape. 

I'm determined to not let Siberian elms take over Cañada Rincon arroyo and its joyous chorus of birdsong and wildflower blooms. I'm also determined to do what I can to give the native community resilience in the face of catastrophic climate change. So in my spare moments, I get out my tools, pull on my gloves, and walk over to the arroyo to remove another few elm trees. 

That hand-saw is as long as my forearm and my hand with fingers extended--it's a formidable tool!

I'm a steward for this section of the arroyo, which means I pick up trash (there's not much), and pull and cut invasive weeds. I'm only allowed to use hand tools, and I'm not allowed to cut down trees larger in diameter than a wrist, which I interpret quite liberally. Today I sawed down two ten- or twelve-foot tall elms (that's one of them in the middle of the photo at the top of the post), plus removed a few that were only a few feet high, the size of fat fingers at the base (for those I use the loppers).

I employ the trees whole for erosion control, dragging them over to the arroyo banks and placing them in eroded rills, trunk upstream, branches downstream. There they act as water retarders, slowing the flow and letting sediments accumulate to stem bank erosion. As long as these teenage elms don't have any seeds, I like to put them to use, rather then just consign them to the dump. 

A freshly-cut elm dragged into a side channel for erosion control. 

When I've spent my available time and energy, I dust myself off, clean my tools, and take a moment to look down "my" stretch of arroyo, noting the absence of a few more more Siberian elms. There are many more to remove, but I'm not daunted. I've reclaimed urban waterways before, and I know the power of even one passionate person (even if that one is small and getting old!) to make significant change.

The truth is, the work is good for me: Using hand tools to remove small trees is very good exercise. And by helping this stretch of arroyo become more resilient in the face of climate change, I'm boosting my resilience, and my store of hope, too. 

Looking downstream, with fewer Siberian elms in view... 

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Living In a Time of Bruised Hearts

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post-sunset
clouds flame out, fade to purple 
bruised like our hearts

I posted that haiku on social media on Monday, August 5th, after the mass shootings in Gilroy, California; El Paso, Texas; and Dayton, Ohio.

It's a bruising time personally, politically, nationally, and globally. Hate and divisiveness are flourishing like no time in my memory since the Viet Nam War era, climate change is accelerating, the astonishing diversity of life that makes this planet home for us all is suffering, war and political upheaval are displacing millions of humans, from Syria to Venezuela and Guatemala, from China's Uighar people to Yemenis starving in their home villages... 

On a personal level, I am reeling from the sudden loss of my sister-in-law, Bonnie Cabe. 

Ron and Bonnie Cabe at Richard's memorial service, December 2011

How do we live with hearts heavy and bruised? How do we get up and face each day, go to work, tend our kids and parents, our communities and our planet; how do we laugh and love when there is so much to grieve and fear and rage against? How do we cultivate resilience in a time that seems to defeat every effort?

There is no one answer, because we are all different. (And bless that diversity, because we need the creative energy of differing voices and viewpoints and talents and energy!). 

One thing we can all do is listen within for the goodness that lives inside us all, the "small, still voice" of love and kindness, justice and compassion. Whether you call that voice God or Allah or Pachmama or Universal Consciousness or simply lovingkindness, we can honor and do our best to live by its call to be our best selves, to, as Quakers say, add to the "Ocean of Light and Love" that pours over the "Ocean of Darkness and Fear."

It seems to me that if we live each day according to what we know is right, treating others with kindness and compassion, if we stand up with grace and courage for what we believe in, we can indeed turn this bruising time toward the best humanity is capable of, and away from the worst. 

How do we find the energy and resilience to act in even small kindly ways in a time that is so bruising? Again, I think there is no one answer, but I also know the benefits of time outside in nature, or "Vitamin N" as some researchers call it. Studies show that time in nature calms us physically, lowering our heart rates and blood pressure, and slowing our production of cortisol, the fight-or-flight hormone. Vitamin N also helps us think more clearly, focus better, and learn more easily; it reduces aggression and increases our empathy (including empathy to our own selves), all of which are critical to living in these frightening and painful times. 

The arroyo that runs through my neighborhood, a natural walking path for everyone from humans to coyotes, roadrunners, and horned toads. 

"Nature" doesn't have to be a wilderness; it can be the wildness that flourishes everywhere around us, whether the arroyo running through my neighborhood or the less-manicured corners of a city park. 

For me, as I wrote in a proposal for the new book I'm working on, solace and resilience and the other benefits of Vitamin N come from hanging out with native plants: 

Plants have been my solace and my inspiration for as long as I can remember: As I child, I cycled with my mom to vacant lots scheduled for bulldozing, and carefully rescued native wildflowers, carrying the plants home in my bike basket to relocate to her woodland garden. As a young scientist, I studied ecosystems from the plants’ point of view. I’ve grown gardens of native and edible plants, designed landscapes and given talks on gardening for habitat and humans, and worked at ecological restoration involving plants. 

I never reflected on why plants wove themselves through my days. Until my husband was diagnosed with brain cancer. Over the two and a quarter years that we walked with his brain tumors, I went from being Richard’s lover, creative collaborator, best friend, and co-parent, to being his caregiver, driver and chef, medicine administrator, butt-wiper, diaper wrangler, and eventually, the midwife of his death.

Escaping outside to the company of the restored mountain prairie of our front yard, our patio pollinator garden, or my organic kitchen garden was all that kept me even partly sane. After Richard died, I recognized that working with native plants to restore Earth is my calling, an expression of my Terraphilia. In this time of climate crisis, gun violence, racism, and sickening divisiveness, we need urgently need what plants can teach us about reweaving healthy community, about restoration and the power of simply working together.

A sacred datura flower (Datura wrightii), opening in my patio garden tonight, rain-washed by a grumbling thunderstorm.

In short, we need nature, and we need each other. So get outside, hug your family and friends, live with kindness, speak up and act out with courage, and love long and well. We can live with bruised hearts, and we can help each other heal and bring positive changes to this battered world. 

I'm not saying it will be easy, but we have to keep working at it. Together. With love and laughter, with outrage and steadfastness, with compassion and kindness and creativity. 

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Books: Horizon, Desert Cabal, and Flight Behavior

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One of the things I love most about starting the long process of working in a new book (long for me anyway--I'm a ridiculously slow writer) is that it's a license to read widely. Since my new memoir, Bless the Birds, went off to my agent for her read, I've been clearing off my desk to make literal and also metaphorical space for the next project. And reading. 

I have several books going right now, including Barry Lopez' deep and thoughtful new book of memoir/essays, Horizon. Barry's book is hefty at over 550 pages, so I'm taking it slowly, dipping in and reading a bit, and then savoring what I read. I'm not ready to say much about it except, Wow. 

As an example, here's the quote from Horizon that I'm using near the end of Bless the Birds: 

We are the darkness, as we are, too, the light. (p. 42)

I am deeply grateful to Barry for the gift of his thoughts and words over these many years, in whatever form. (He writes amazing fiction too.) His work and the letters we exchange sporadically have stretched and enriched my understanding of the world and of my life's mission. Barry never fails to reaching deep into my core; sometimes when I turn inward, feeling hopeless, he quietly but firmly turns me back toward the rest of life, too.

In contrast to Horizon, Amy Irvine's Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness is a deceptively small volume, coming in at just under 90 pages. The book's size is not, in any way, a reflection of its impact. Irvine's extended conversation-essay-dream is an frank and frankly feminist look at today's West and the part that Ed Abbey and his classic of western nature writing, Desert Solitaire, played in shaping it, an appraisal that is long overdue.  

Irving writes in the form of an extended conversation with Abbey on a visit to his grave in the desolate stretches of the Sonoran Desert somewhere not far from the Arizona-Mexico border. It's fresh and sometimes funny magical realism in service of understanding where we are and what the heck to do about it. Her forthright, fearless, and honest words offer a much-needed breath of female air and thought, in a field of writing that still models itself on men's voices, men's achievements, men's way of telling stories. There's nothing wrong with being male, but as Irvine points out (without saying it directly), women shouldn't be expected to be the same. And our voices and experiences matter. Especially now. 

With Abbey's beloved desert in danger of being loved to death: "Every where you look there are these hyped-up, tricked-out, uber-fit, machine-like humans that pump, grind, climb, soar, and scramble through the desert so fast they're just a muscled blur. The land's not the thing; it's the buzz." 

With public lands under a different kind of assault, as well, "endangered in ways we never conceived of...." by our current president's push to revive fossil fuels extraction. Including two of the national's newest national monuments in Utah, which "our so-called Commander-in-Chief has filleted..., leaving only the stark bones in custody." 

With the inhumanity of that same president's border policies, the increasing hatefulness of our society, and of course, the catastrophe of global climate change. Irvine's conversation with Abbey is at once fierce rant, affectionate address, and courageous speaking-truth-to-power, airing the flaws and prejudices in one of the canons of western literature: 

You should know up front that I'm admiring, but not starstruck. You got some things right, but you got other things wrong. Like calling the desert "Abbey's country." Can you imagine, in my own book about Utah, if I had called it "Amy's country"? I could have justified it; my family has been there for seven generations and counting. Yet even with such credentials the clan of my surname doesn't get to call it ours--because it's all stolen property: whatever the forefathers didn't snatch from the region's Native Americans on one occasion, they took from Mexico on another. But that's what the white man does. He comes in after the fact and lifts his leg on someone else's turf. You, sir, were no different.

I ripped through Desert Cabal, nodding appreciation, laughing, or smiling ruefully on each page. Irvine speaks my truth, and I imagine that of a lot of other women, in this slim but mighty--and classic--work. I LOVE Desert Cabal, and am reading the book again, slowly this time. 

Big thanks to the ever-gracious and forgiving Andy Nettel of Back of Beyond Books, who gifted me with a signed copy of Desert Cabal on my quick stop in Moab on the long road home from my Wyoming and Washington State road-trip, and to Torrey House Books for publishing Desert Cabal with Back of Beyond. 

Barbara Kingsolver's novel, Flight Behavior, has been on my to-read list for too long. I have no excuse for not reading it sooner, except that it came out a year after Richard's death. I didn't read much for several years, mostly because I was working so hard to keep my head above financial waters, and to make a home for myself. Oh, and to figure out who this solo "me" was and is. (I'm still working on the latter. Like life itself, it's a process, not a destination.)

Flight Behavior was published in 2012, when (incredibly now) most American's hadn't yet grasped that climate change wasn't in some distant future; the catastrophe was an is on us now. Reading it today, Kingsolver's poignant and compelling novel of what happens when the entire population of Monarch butterflies that usually winter in the Oyemel fir forests of central Mexico relocate to a single valley in the Appalachians, is even more gripping and prescient. As always, Kingsolver's writing lifts even the most elementary of stories right off the page to take glorious flight. As in this single sentence describing the winter sky:

Whoever was in charge if the weather had put a recall on blue and nailed up this mess of dirty white sky like a lousy drywall job.

(With experience in construction and renovation, I especially appreciate that metaphor!)

Not that Kingsolver has ever told an elementary story, and Flight Behavior, which traces both the perilous winter the monarch butterflies spend far north of their usual temperate refuge, and the effect of their climate-change-propelled relocation on the local residents, especially the main character, one smart, flame-haired Dellarobia, mother to two young kids, married at 17 years old to Cub, the mild-mannered son of a farming family, and desperate to drag her life out of the rut it is in. Those butterflies, which Dellarobia first sees without her glasses on and takes to be some kind of fire flickering over the steep hillsides above their farm, do the trick, but not easily or kindly or without heartbreak. 

This is a cautionary tale of what happens to each of us, to whole communities, to ecosystems, to the earth itself, when pushed beyond what we can bear. And Kingsolver lets it unfold at the personal and planetary levels simultaneously and beautifully believably, showing us, not telling us, what happens when we lose our way, lose our ability to care, lose our trust and love for even ourselves. (The thread on science and how badly scientists communicate and how cynically journalists sometimes exploit that absolutely nails both of my fields.) 

Flight Behavior is a gorgeous and compelling novel told by a master storyteller who can and does find the redemptive possibilities in even the most tragic of times. Dellarobia and her world--as well as those glorious monarchs, some of whom survive that calamitous winter in the wrong place--will stick with you long after you finish this soaring and searing story. 

**** 

On to more books in my ever-growing reading pile.... What books hold you in thrall right now? 

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Life: Practice in Revision and Adaptation

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For some years now, I've had this dream of a little camper with solar panels on top and a cozy bed, kitchen, and space to write--a super-tiny house on wheels--that I could live in while I do my weeding work in Yellowstone and other wild places. Over the winter, I got as far as putting down a deposit on the compact RV I had chosen. And then, the very same day the sale of my Cody house closed, the RV manufacturer went bankrupt. 

So I revised that dream, and settled instead on a sweet trailer made by Colorado Teardrops in Boulder, a  custom shop producing amazingly efficient, beautifully designed trailers, and working on becoming a zero-waste manufacturer. Their designs and values are very appealing. 

Only I found that plugging trailer brakes into the hybrid regenerative braking system in Noche, my beloved Toyota Highlander Hybrid, isn't allowed. (Meaning Toyota can't guarantee that the system would work with trailer brakes; further, adding the seven-pin hitch and brake socket would void my warranty.)

So I revised the dream again and fitted my basic camping set-up right into Noche, giving me a "micro-camper" with a cozy bed, storage for my clothes, weeding tools, camp-stove, a lap-desk for writing, and even a camp toilet. It's an amazingly comfortable set-up, if quite basic and compact. (And Noche averages 29-30 miles per gallon of gas, not bad for a vehicle I can sleep in--or transport seven friends or family members at a pinch.) 

My micro-camper set-up in Noche. 

It's also a lot cheaper than the custom camper I started out dreaming. Too, this set-up is better than my old camping space in Red, my pickup, because I'm inside Noche, not in a pickup bed. In bad weather or if something goes wrong, I just climb into Noche's front seat and head on my way without having to get outside. 

I still imagine that the perfect small camper van is out there for me, something energy-efficient, simple, comfy, and well-built--without costing an arm and six legs. Since I haven't found it yet, I'm quite comfortable with the simpler and smaller, revised version of that dream. Just being able to hit the road is a blessing. I get a lot of thinking done during windshield time, and I get to experience the landscapes I love in all sorts of moods and seasons. 

Heart Mountain, north of Cody, from Dead Indian Hill, where the grasslands were unbelievably green this spring.

Revision and adaptation seems to be a major theme in my life right now.

 For instance, I spent this spring revising Bless the Birds for what I hope is the final time. It's since been accepted for publication by SheWrites Press for their Spring, 2021 list. Which brings up an ending: Bless the Birds will go off my desk (finally!) and that opens up space for working on the next book, Weeding Yellowstone. 

Another revision and adaptation: I intended to spend a good part of my summer in Yellowstone digging weeds. Then I flunked my annual blood tests, so those plans got revised. Instead, I spent a long weekend in Cody helping my friends Jay and Connie Moody at TAC, a spiritual retreat center, and also got to hang out with Judy, another dear friend, who is recovering from a massive stroke.

The labyrinth at TAC at sunset, with Carter Mountain and the Absaroka Range in the background. 

In other words, I've been nurturing friendships instead of ecosystems. That's fine: tending both brings rewards. I'll resume my work in Yellowstone when I'm healthier again. 

Revising my Yellowstone plans also gave me time to drive to Washington state for a gathering of my family. Our branch of the Tweit clan isn't big, but we do love getting together. We've been having such a good time hanging out, playing Yellowstone National Park Monopoly, taking walks with the dogs, and eating great meals, that I haven't taken any any pictures at all.  

Instead of thinking and planning photo opportunities, I'm enjoying the moments as they arise, reveling in being here and taking part in life, laughter, and love. 

That's a healthy adaptation, I know.

Happy Summer to all!

Calochortus macrocarpus, sagebrush mariposa lily, in the coulee country of eastern Washington

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Writing: Immersed in Revision

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Friday afternoon I broke off from my current writing obsession--revising Bless the Birds yet one more time--to drive to Taos to meet with Professor Sara Beth Childers' "Writing the New Mexico Landscape" workshop at Oklahoma State University's Doel Reed Center for the Arts. After I read from some of my work, including Barren, Wild, and Worthless, which they studied in the workshop, we talked about writing over dinner at Old Martina's Hall in Ranchos de Taos, across from the famous church painted by Georgia O'Keeffe and many others. 

After the conversation with Sara Beth and her amazing students--all candidates for MFAs or PhDs in literature--I was so jazzed that I woke at around two-thirty thinking about the revisions I'm making to Bless the Birds. Normally when I wake in the night, my strategy is to let my thoughts spin out until I go back to sleep again. I do not get up, because then I'm awake and I often don't go back to sleep. 

But Friday night--actually early Saturday morning, the writing was speaking so loudly I just couldn't ignore it. So I turned on the light, got my laptop, and wrote down the two haiku in my head. (Yes, there are haiku in this memoir.) And then I wrote about seeds as a metaphor, and what it means to embrace the end of life when you are the one who will live on. Finally, at about four-thirty, I went back to sleep. 

Saturday morning, I re-read what I wrote and added a few more notes, and then headed off to Taos Ski Valley to meet Sara Beth and the group for a hike. (I got lost in the maze of non-named dirt roads and was late, but that's another story.) We hiked uphill on snow for two miles to Williams Lake, a lovely little lake still buried under deep snow in a glacial cirque. It was a slithery trip going steeply uphill, but the group was determined to make it to the lake. (We gained 800 feet elevation, going from 10,200 feet at the trailhead to 11,020 feet at the lake; my pedometer recorded the hike as equivalent to going up 36 flights of stairs!) 

Along the way, I talked about snow and forests and avalanches (we had to detour around debris fields of not one but two big avalanches), the "wood wide web" of fungal threads that connects trees, how to read the landscape, and other nature things. Oh, and we talked more about writing. (The photo at the top of the post is me talking with part of the group. Notice that the ground is white--we hiked on about two feet of old snow, the remnants of the first generous winter snowpack after many years of drought.)

The Taos Valley all spring green this weekend. We hiked up near the snowy bit at the top of the peaks in the distance. 

By the time we slithered our way back down to the trailhead and I said good bye to Sara Beth and the workshop participants, my head was full of more ideas about my revisions, and my eyes were gritty from lack of sleep. I drove home to Santa Fe and told myself to give revising and my brain a rest. Of course, I didn't listen: I just had to slip those two new haiku into the chapters where I heard them, and that of course led to more revising.

Then yesterday, Sunday, a day I usually give myself a break from writing, I had another idea about the story, so I worked my way through more revisions. And while today might have been a National Holiday, you wouldn't have known that from my schedule, which included four more hours of revising this morning and early afternoon. (I don't think the veterans in my life--Richard and my dad--would mind. They know I think of them every day.)

I finished Chapter 23, which leaves me four more chapters and the Epilogue to revise. The closer I get to the end--of the story and of that chapter of my life--the more urgency and intensity I feel to keep going, the drumbeat of narrative pushing me onward. 

That's what happens when a piece of writing takes on its own life, gaining strength and power: it sucks you in, and it's hard to step away from working with it. This story has been a tough one for me, going through many revisions as I struggled to find the heart of it. It's one thing to write about your life in a way that friends and family who know you or the story are moved.

It's a whole other thing to write the story in a way that anyone will be gripped and compelled to read on. As I revise and go deeper, I mine my personal experience for those universal themes and threads that will draw all readers in. I want Bless the Birds to grip them by the throat and not let them go, so that when they reach the end, the way they see life and its ending is forever changed. 

My aim with this revision is to walk a story about death right back into life and how we live it, with prose that shimmers as bright as the blooming yucca I photographed this morning on my ridge walk above my neighborhood, and dazzles like the claret cup cactus blossoms nearby.

I'm not obsessed, am I? Maybe, but there are worse things to be obsessed about than writing...

Banana yucca (Yucca baccata) in full bloom; claret cup cactus (Echinocereus triglochidiaus) nearby

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Spring Wildflowers and Weeding: Medicine for the Spirit

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One of the things I love about my new neighborhood is that it's not manicured. And an arroyo--a stream channel that is usually dry on the surface but channels water underground--runs along one edge of the neighborhood.

This waterway serves as a pathway for wildlife and humans alike (oh, the nighttime coyote chorus!). At this time of year, birdsong fills the air when I walk at dawn, from the trilling of spotted and canyon towhees to flocks of busy bushtits, hoarse chickadees, and the sweet whistles of western bluebirds. 

The hills above the arroyo are polka-dotted with piñon pines and Rocky Mountain junipers, forming a dwarf woodland of short, wide trees. In between the trees, shrubs, bunchgrasses, and wildflowers stipple the adobe-colored soil.

The houses and condo developments sit within this still-more-wild-than-not landscape, rather than obliterating it. Which delights me, since I can walk out my door and be immersed in nature. While still living walking distance from the neighborhood Sprouts grocery and other urban amenities.  

A winter of abundant precipitation has sprouted a glorious progression of spring wildflowers. Some are familiar from the years Richard, Molly, and I lived in southern New Mexico; others are new. Here are photos of the blooming as I have witnessed it:

Woolly milkvetch (Astragalus mollisimus), the first spring flower to appear on my walking route. It's hard to imagine a more vivid antidote to winter than those magenta flowers.

Unless it is the sunshine yellow cushions of this diminutive bladderpod (Physaria species), which I'll be able to identify once it has seedpods.

I thought the bladderpod flowers maxed out yellow until the fringed puccoon (Lithospermum incisum) started to bloom! 

And then the perky sue (Tetraneuris argenteus) upped the ante to pure gold, like splatters of earthbound sunshine. 

Perky sue en masse, a chromatic splash of color. 

Then more purple flowers began to bloom, starting with plains verbena (Glandularia bipinnatifida), which broadcasts a lovely sweet scent. 

Scorpionweed (Phacelia integrafolia) unfurls its lilac blossoms with the outrageously long dancing stamens... 

Just as wax currant's dangling ivory bells open (Ribes cereum). Scorpionweed appeals to native bees, wax currant flowers' abundant nectar feeds  migrating hummingbirds.  

More milkvetches bloom. Thanks to help from Al Schneider of Southwest Colorado Wildflowers, I think the carpet-former with the dainty flowers above is Nuttall's milkvetch (Astragalus nuttalliana).

This ivory milkvetch may be Astragalus bisulcatus, but I'll have to wait for seedpods to make a definitive ID. 

The surprise on this morning's walk was this charming and very tiny bristly nama (Nama hispida), with purple flowers the size of my thumbnail on a plant all of two inches tall!

Of course, all of that wonderful winter and early spring moisture sprouted seeds of invasive weeds too. So I am--of course!--pulling weeds around my neighborhood to help control these aggressive plants that germinate en masse and crowd out the wildflowers that our pollinators and songbirds depend on.

I started with tansy mustard (Descuriana sophia), an annual that sprouts over the winter, and then shoots up a flower stalk with tiny yellow cross-shaped flowers as the soil temperatures warm up. Like all annuals, it seeds prolifically, but is easy to eradicate by pulling the shallowly rooted plants and bagging them, seeds and all, for the trash. 

Now I'm working on cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), another Eurasian invasive annual weed. Its nodding seed-heads are quite distinctive, and it is also easy to pull until it dries out. Cheatgrass gets its common name because it is often the first grass to green up, making whole swaths of landscape look deceptively lush. Until the the grass plants dry out and die a few weeks later, and shatter, scattering their abundant seeds and leaving the soil bare. It cheats grazers of forage and cheats the landscape of nutrients. 

Me, weeding cheatgrass from under the cottonwood trees at the entrance of my neighborhood. 

Helping control the invasive weeds in my neighborhood is my way of giving back to these high-desert landscapes for the gifts they give me. The bird-song, coyote choruses, the wildflowers in spring, the butterflies and hummingbirds now fluttering and hovering past my window. Weeding helps keep the relationships that sustain the world I love intact and healthy. It's also deeply rewarding to see the wildflowers return in the space I've freed for them. 

As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in the journal Humans and Nature:

Ecological restoration is an act of reciprocity, and the Earth asks us to turn our gifts to healing the damage we have done. The Earth-shaping prowess that we thoughtlessly use to sicken the land can be used to heal it. It is not just the land that is broken, but our relationship with land. We can be partners in renewal; we can be medicine for the Earth.

Pulling invasive weeds is my way of being partner in renewal; it is medicine both for Earth and for my battered spirit. 

What is your way of being medicine for this living planet, the only home our species has ever known?

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